Why We Still Talk About Fight Club

For those of us who were initiated by the film, we learned the first rule 15 years ago.

Do not talk about Fight Club. 

Shortly thereafter, we learned the second rule:

Do not talk about Fight Club. 

So naturally, 15 years later, we are still breaking these rules and talking about it, because Fight Club is the most important film of my lifetime.

Here’s why.

***[SPOILERS FOLLOW, OF COURSE]***

Fight Club Addresses Our Lost Manhood

norton
Photo: EmsiProduction, Creative Commons

“We’re still men, aren’t we?”

In the film’s early sequences, the Narrator attends a support group for men with testicular cancer. The man he meets to cry with, Bob, has developed “bitch tits,” massive chests that poke through his body-building t-shirt. Another stands and delivers a crushing testimony: his ex-wife recently bore her first child with another man. We can only assume why the relationship didn’t work.

“Yes,” the Narrator says, patting Bob’s enormous shoulders. “Men is what we are.”

These heart-breaking moments set the stage for the Narrator’s crisis and one of Fight Club’s strongest statements: Men are losing, and desperate for, their Manhood.

Notice, in these opening scenes, that in order for the Narrator to sleep, he needs to cry. By pretending that he is dying and forcing the raw emotions, the Narrator slaps a band-aid on his absent Manhood. He copes with his uncontrollable sadness and anger by joining other men who have no hope whatsoever. Giving up control, or “losing all hope, is freedom.”

But it’s a false freedom that doesn’t last.

The Narrator can’t lie to himself anymore when a strange woman, Marla Singer, attends the same support groups (for diseases she doesn’t have, either). Once again, the Narrator is confronted with a situation that he cannot control.

So again, he can’t sleep.

Before Marla came into his life, the Narrator ran to his IKEA furniture and his pathetic corporate job. After meeting Marla, he runs to bare-knuckle boxing and rampant destruction. In all of this he runs away from confronting his emotions.

He must flee the promise of his mortality.

Men experience emotions all the time, yet they’re often not trained to deal with them, probably because it’s assumed that women are emotional geysers while men are volcanoes, holding back the explosive pressure as long as possible. At some point, men were told that emotions were filthy. Worse, emotions were suspiciously ‘girly’ or ‘gay’. Maybe this happened after World War II, maybe on the playground, maybe in the Garden of Eden. We’ll never know.

This is a reality that threatens us all. The very presence of a negative or conflicted emotion betrays the fact that life is not working out as planned. Disappointment, regret, bitterness, hatred, loneliness, fear – all of these are caused by life’s many cruel injustices, and those injustices often start early.

Manhood should be a full embrace of emotion and the courage required to tackle life’s challenges.

But sadly, many mistake it for evasion at any cost.

No wonder so many of us are depressed.

Fight Club Confronts Our Absent Fathers

Photo: killSCREW, Creative Commons
Photo: killSCREW, Creative Commons

“If you could fight anybody, who’d you fight?” the Narrator asks.

“I’d fight my dad,” Tyler replies.

Very few of the men of Fight Club are happy sons or successful fathers.

“My two grown kids won’t even return my phone calls,” Bob sobs, draped in the Narrator’s arms.

Fight Club doesn’t play nice when it deals with Fatherhood, nor is it shy when linking failed Manhood to failed Fatherhood.

After the Narrator describes his father’s way of moving around the country and starting new families, Tyler replies, “The f*cker’s settin’ up franchises.” If franchising is the way of the world now, perhaps it can work for men wishing to plant their flag in as many uteri as possible.

Fight Club assigns much of the blame for male rage to absentee fathers and the corporations they’ve created. These men and their companies have passed a Great Lie to their sons: that “…[they’d] all be movie gods and rock stars.”

Our ancestors, whether biological or social, have glutted themselves on material possessions, and the exhaustive pursuit of them, and bequeathed this obsessive lifestyle unto us from afar. This distance isn’t purely physical: it’s emotional too. Men didn’t learn to cower from emotions on their own.

They were taught that by the cowardice of their missing fathers.

Civilization has always been led by its fathers, whether into glory or ruin. Fight Club portrays a generation of men who might be smart enough to realize that ruin is right down the road, and may only be able to stop it with extreme measures.

Fight Club is Brashly Prophetic

Photo: Joe-G
Photo: Joe-G

As it depicts the impending fall of civilization, Fight Club daringly bets the farm by naming names.

This is a huge risk. How many films are lost to the pop culture cemetery with their references to hit songs, or defunct websites like MySpace and Napster?

But Fight Club’s jabs are dead-on: Starbucks. Microsoft. Martha Stewart. Even Meryl Streep takes a hit. And a lot of these references were, at their 1999 release, semi-prophetic.

Fight Club’s forecast of things to come was never intended to come true, hence why the film is still so damned enjoyable. When a film makes a prediction in the fashion of science fiction, time evaluates its accuracy with exacting cynicism.

But Fight Club comes along and gives a stiff middle-finger to the 1990’s explosion of mass-marketing and product placement. How can you critique its foreshadowing when a single frame of pornography is spliced into it? The satire of Fight Club has become uncannily relevant as it has matured.

When Tyler refers to reducing civilization to “ground zero,” his words are bitterly seasoned. Remember the days before 9/11?

When Tyler says, “Martha’s polishing the brass on the Titanic – it’s all going down, man,” can you help but laugh at the fact that Stewart has done prison time? She hadn’t by 1999.

And can you watch the end of the film without smirking, or wincing, at the thought of Great Recession, when big banks and credit card companies made off with so much of the little man’s money?

Fight Club chooses the right brands to pick on, too. Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, and Starbucks are all huge names. The film doesn’t bother to mention names that were new and hip in 1999, therefore pleasing a particular demographic that tested well with the production studio. It had the balls to set its crosshairs on the Big Boys and fire at will, without regard for what people might think.

And amid the name-dropping, the film still spends the majority of its time focusing on a deeper issue, the fractured Manhood of nearly every American male. Fight Club doesn’t reduce itself to a mere list of barbs and pot-shots. It shines a light on a particular strand of seething anger, American Anger, that was forgotten about when we turned our attention to the danger of Islamic extremists.

For a fragile moment after 9/11, we hoped our nation could regain the compassion stolen by Vietnam, by Watergate, by crack-cocaine, by the men who beat Rodney King, by a steadily widening gap between haves and have-nots. Bumper stickers appeared on every car.

“United We Stand.”

How long did it last before the American Anger bubbled back to the surface?

Unlike so many other cultures with clearly drawn lines between the classes, sequestering Commoners and Royalty, Americans believe that if we truly want to be something, we can work hard enough to get there. Whether or not that’s what the Founding Fathers intended for us to believe, it’s a key ingredient to the American Mythos. Anyone can be President. Anyone can turn a penny into a penthouse. Even the “all-singing-all-dancing crap of the world” can make it happen.

Only in America.

Perhaps our American sense of Hope is our greatest asset – after all, could we have defeated the fascist leviathan of the Wermacht without it? But perhaps our American Hope is also our greatest inherent weakness. There are only so many dollars to spread around – or better said, there is limited incentive for those with the dollars to share them.

And that unfulfilled hope can turn to bitterness, and anger, and action.

Hence, Occupy Wall Street.

Ferguson.

The power of social media to crush celebrities and politicians without hesitation or mercy.

We may not live in a world run by Project Mayhem, but we live in a world where gas station workers, ambulance drivers, and garbage haulers are raising their voices more loudly than ever, and corporations are listening very closely.

Fight Club is the Story of the American Soul

subliminal
Photo: Seth Anderson, Creative Commons

Few of us will ever venture over the schizophrenic cliff that Fight Club does, but we daily (and willingly) spend our lives fantasizing about being something more, just like the Narrator who is actually Tyler Durden.

The film’s only “sex scene” is a dream sequence involving blurry still-frames of “sex”. It’s more question-mark than a traditional sex scene, a confused, man-made fantasy of a perfect lover enjoying perfect but impossible sex. Even though the Narrator is technically making love to Marla, we know where his head really is: it’s outside the bedroom, stuck in a tortured, sexless, lonely psyche, listening in to the fun he’s not having.

Yet he is the one copulating with Marla.

He just can’t appreciate it.

So goes almost every situation in Fight Club. The Narrator grasps desperately for a reality that he’s actually living as his alter-ego.

And like him, we as Americans are constantly reminded that we aren’t living life like we should be. If only we could have a better car, granite counter tops, or the newest smartphones.

In 2001, over 100 CD’s were stolen out of my car. And for the first time in my life, I actually paid attention to my anger. The words of the Prophet Tyler were running through my head.

“The things you own end up owning you.”

Perhaps the most fitting scene to describe Fight Club’s poignant illustration of the American Soul is the infamous “Human Sacrifice” scene.

Dragged behind a convenience store, poor Raymond K. Hessel must answer a question.

With a gun to his head.

“What did you want to be!?”

He stammers and stutters until Tyler cocks the gun behind his ears. Under threat of execution, Raymond swears that he will begin school to become a veterinarian, else his family may have to identify him using nothing but dental records. He runs into the night, and Tyler opens the gun.

It was empty.

Tyler never planned on sacrificing any humans that night. But he had to convince Raymond K. Hessel that he meant business, otherwise he’d never persuade the lousy convenience store worker to make something of his life.

“Tomorrow will be the greatest day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life,” Tyler murmurs as his victim flees. “His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.”

We American souls are not happy with what we have, and we ache for more. And when we come back from the mall or the store or that package arrives from Amazon, we’re happy for an hour or two.

And then what?

“You are not a beautiful, unique snow-flake. You are the same, decaying organic matter as everything else,” Tyler preaches to his space monkeys.

Is that what the film is really saying? Is the miracle of life simply an accident? Am I totally the same as everyone else? Does life even have a purpose?

“This is your life – and it’s ending one minute at a time.”

Maybe Fight Club is satirizing two extremes that America has foolishly embraced. Maybe it’s encouraging us to be thankful for what we have and irate over what’s being unjustly withheld. Maybe it’s pushing our asses off the couch or our hands to the grindstone. Maybe it’s saving us from a fatal identity crisis.

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.”

Photo: Twentieth Centure Fox
Photo: Twentieth Centure Fox

The film’s conclusion hardly offers a succinct answer. Blasting a hole in your cheek won’t save you from lethargy, angst, or disenfranchisement. But a trip to the IKEA labyrinth won’t, nor will a membership in a troupe of guerrilla terrorists.

“You’re not your f*cking khakis.”

Why do we still talk about Fight Club fifteen years later?

Because fifteen years later, Fight Club still talks about us.

And it’s still telling the startling, brutal truth.

Cue sobbing.

We’re still men….

…Aren’t we?

 

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